Thirteen members of the Northwest congressional delegation, all Democrats from Washington and Oregon, asked the federal government this week to extend the comment period on the draft environmental impact statement on Columbia/Snake River dams until 30 days after the Covid-19 public health emergency is over.
The draft EIS was originally released on February 28 with a 45 day public comment period.
U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), as well as U.S. Reps. Adam Smith (D, WA-09), Rick Larsen (D, WA-02), Derek Kilmer (D, WA-06), Suzanne Bonamici (D, OR-01), Earl Blumenauer (D, OR-03), Suzan K. DelBene (D, WA-01), Pramila Jayapal (D, WA-07), Kim Schrier, M.D. (D, WA-08), and Denny Heck (D, WA-10), sent a letter to Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mary Neumayr requesting an extension of the 45 day public comment period currently underway for the Columbia River System draft EIS.
In observance of public health guidance, and in light of the social disruption caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic and the federal, state, and local government attention it requires, the lawmakers pressed to extend the deadline for public comment until at least 30 days after the federal public health emergency is over.
“Given the unique nature of this crisis, it is paramount that all of our national resources and energies be focused on effecting a comprehensive response,” the lawmakers wrote. “The current crisis cannot plausibly provide for an environment conducive to robust public comment. Public feedback should be solicited in an accessible manner and, crucially, in-person, so that the citizens who stand to be affected most directly can make their voices heard to the officials charged with making these decisions.”
The lawmakers continued: “Accordingly, we request the extension of this comment period until no sooner than 30 days after the conclusion of the public health emergency as declared by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”
“Public feedback is a crucial aspect of the federal rulemaking process, and considering the profound impact that the Columbia River System has on the region and its many diverse inhabitants, it is vital the public has a chance to voice their thoughts and opinions before any action is decided upon—options which are currently virtually impossible due to efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus,” said lawmakers in a press release.
“We received a copy of the NW delegation’s letter but as it is addressed to CEQ so we will look to them to provide a response,” said Matt Rabe, Director, Public Affairs Northwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Chair, USACE Communication and Public Affairs Strategic Steering (COMPASS) Committee, in an e-mail.
“We are receiving valuable public comments on the draft EIS daily through several comment methods, including mail, the online comment platform and the now-concluded comment teleconferences. We encourage the public to submit comments that will contribute to the quality of the final EIS and our decisions through the established date of April 13. Details on the methods to access the DEIS and the Executive Summary, as well as descriptions of the ways to provide comments, remain available online at www.crso.info.
“This week we concluded a series of six public comment telephone meetings as alternates to previously scheduled in-person meetings. These teleconferences allowed us to comply with current social distancing orders in response to the COVID-19 outbreak while upholding our commitment to accept verbal comments and support the opportunity for the public to listen to input and perspectives from across the region while. Participation in the teleconferences ranged from 80 to over 250 callers and we recorded between 20 and 90 comments per meeting. We are pleased with how well these calls met our needs to receive important public input.
“Our team is already reviewing comments and will consider all substantive comments. We remain on track to publish the final EIS in July and issue our records of decision by the end of September 2020.”
Read full letter below:
March 30, 2020
Dear Madam Chair:
We write to request an extension of the 45-day public comment period currently underway for the Federal Register notice entitled EIS No. 20200052, Draft, BR, BPA, USACE, OR, Columbia River System Operations. Due to the ongoing 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic—and the specific toll that it is taking on the Pacific Northwest—it is our concern that this important matter cannot receive the thoughtful consideration that it requires under these circumstances.
Given the unique nature of this crisis, it is paramount that all of our national resources and energies be focused on effecting a comprehensive response. The current crisis cannot plausibly provide for an environment conducive to robust public comment. Public feedback should be solicited in an accessible manner and, crucially, in-person, so that the citizens who stand to be affected most directly can make their voices heard to the officials charged with making these decisions. Accordingly, we request the extension of this comment period until no sooner than 30 days after the conclusion of the public health emergency as declared by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act are clear: agencies must incorporate the feedback from public comments into final rules, including in instances when the rules stand to have significant and long-term environmental impacts. The Columbia River System is a vital resource to the region, and a diverse array of stakeholders are counting on this specific environmental impact statement to bring a degree of finality and certainty to these issues. This can only be accomplished through a transparent public comment process that includes public meetings. This is an issue not of ideology, but one of public safety and full faith in institutions to be responsive to the most pressing matters.
We stand ready to work with the Administration to expeditiously extend the comment period or have the public comment period reopened once this national crisis has been addressed. In this moment, our collective energies are best served working to hasten that moment.
Thank you for your swift consideration of this pressing matter.